The Dilemma of Reopening: Key Considerations for Reopening in Kenya

The impact of COVID-19 has been felt world over, with countries in the developed and the developing world facing significant challenges alike.  The situation in Kenya has not been any different. The country’s economy has been hurt tremendously, with the pandemic taking a toll on businesses, both small and large, and many people losing jobs. President Uhuru Kenyatta, in two state addresses – during Labour Day and Madaraka Day celebrations – hinted at a phased reopening of the country. Already, restaurants have begun to operate, albeit under strict public health guidelines.

However, this is happening at a time when the infection rate in the Country is at its highest since the outbreak of the pandemic and the economic viability increasingly becoming more precarious. The question, therefore, is not whether to reopen or not, but rather how to do it in a manner that will ensure that the public health burden of the contagion is kept to its lowest while pursuing the economic and social revitalization. Key considerations for Kenya in this approach include; establishing a public health capability to handle the burgeoning infections, a general public’s willingness and responsibility to obey public health guidelines, and building of mutual trust, first between citizens and authorities, and then among citizens themselves.

The COVID-19 Cauldron

The first case of COVID-19 was recorded in the country on March 13. On March 27, the government instituted a number of restrictions including a country-wide dusk-to-dawn curfew; a partial lockdown of hotspot counties, that is, Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale, and Kilifi; closure of schools and other learning institutions; suspension of all public gatherings and social events; and a general encouragement of a stay or work-at-home policy for employers and other businesses. For nearly two and half months, the country has been in a state of uncertainty, with the number of infections steadily increasing, despite the existing measures. As of June 3, the national tally of COVID-19 infections stood at 2,216 with 74 deaths according to the Ministry of Health. While the rate of infection seems to quadruple with the onset of mass testing, and several analysts and government authorities warning that the disease might stay in the country for a relatively long period, there is a growing perception to start reopening the country.

The main concern, however, is the huge economic burden that the country and citizens are shouldering and the implication that retaining the current restrictions for the next few weeks or months would have. Although several factors have ostensibly combined to compounded the impact of the pandemic in the country, including a general economic contraction in the East African Community (EAC) economic area and a slump in tourism and export trade, the greatest impact accrues  from domestic restrictions that have disrupted the lives and livelihoods of millions of Kenyans. Recent data released by KEPSA suggests that overall business activity in the country in March and April dropped by approximately 40% percent, with dominant sectors such as tourism, education, and agriculture recording ‘very high’ impact due to COVID-19.

Earlier in April, economic projections indicated that Kenya would face a GDP reduction of about USD 3 billion in the case where the virus would be contained. However, this would shoot to USD 10 billion, in the scenario where containment would not be achieved. At the current state, with the hope of containing the disease rapidly waning, Kenya has started to feel the heat of the debilitating the COVID-19. Major economic challenges occasioned by the disease include a massive loss of income mainly for daily wage earners, reduction in household and business spending, loss of tourism income, and disruptions in supply chains for business and large companies. As a given, the depth of economic recession in the country will also depend on the duration that the current restrictions will remain in force. Particularly, the dusk-to-dawn curfew that has immensely reduced normal business working hours, and thus has interrupted income streams for thousands of people.

The social impact of the pandemic also continues to weigh heavily on many Kenyans. With cessation of movement in and out of Nairobi and other counties, the closure of social places including worship centers, and general call for physical distancing, it is anticipated that cases of mental health will increase.

Key Considerations

In the face of the above realities, it is important that critical considerations will be explored to allow for gradual reopening of the country while at the same time sustaining the country’s gains in limiting the spread of the virus. While it is extremely challenging to operate normally in a COVID-19 situation, the bottom line of success for Kenya will depend largely on the mutual support and seamless cooperation between the authorities and the general public. For this to be achieved three key consideration remain important.

First, enhancing of the public health capacity and capability to handle the burgeoning caseload in the country. Since the onset of mass testing in targeted locations, the caseload for COVID-19 has been rising by double digits. The implication is that the number of people taken into isolation and requiring medical attention might increase steadily in the coming couple of months. It also sends a clear signal that community spread of the virus is particularly high. In such a scenario, the only viable remedy is to prepare the next destination; the hospitals which will attend to the medical needs of the patients. In considering reopening, establishing a strong health system will renew the confidence of the people, who in turn will be more willing to their their usual day to day activities.

Second, contriving a general public’s sense of ownership and personal responsibility in protecting themselves. Transparency, accountability and sustained relevant communication is likely to inspire ownership and personal responsibility on every Kenyan in ensuring that they protect themselves from the disease. The authorities need to instil confidence in the people and further move forward to encourage and acknowledge individual responsibilities in combating the virus. This will be more effectual in reopening as people will have to take individual effort to ensure physical distancing, wearing of face masks and maintaining hand hygiene.

Lastly, the fight against COVID-19 requires the development of mutual trust both at the citizen-government and citizen-citizen levels. The importance of trust in crisis management cannot be overstated. Mutual trust between the citizen and the authorities will amplify the degree of acceptance and compliance with regulations during the phases of reopening. Trust is also important in generating solidarity among citizens; an essential ingredient that will stimulate quicker regaining of normalcy.

Otieno O. Joel is a Research Assistant at the HORN Institute.

Photo: Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe at a past press conference at Afya House, Nairobi (Photo Credit: Ministry of Health, Kenya)

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